How Republicans are channeling Dean Smith in the 2014 midterms

Republicans have settled on a simple strategy heading into the 2014 elections: Run out the clock.

Here's WaPo's Bob Costa on the strategy:

After a tumultuous week of party infighting and leadership stumbles, congressional Republicans are focused on calming their divided ranks in the months ahead, mostly by touting proposals that have wide backing within the GOP and shelving any big-ticket legislation for the rest of the year.....GOP brass in both chambers have shifted their focus to stability, looking to avoid intraparty drama, rally behind incumbents and build Republicans’ ground game ahead of November’s midterm elections, where they hope to be competitive in a slew of Senate races and hold on to the party’s 17-seat House majority.

That approach reminds the hoops-obsessed Fix of the "Four Corners" offense put into place by legendary University of North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith. Once his team got a lead, Smith would instruct his point guard to handle the ball while the other four offensive players stood, literally, in the four corners of the court. The point guard would drive and then kick it out to one of those four corners. The corner player would pass it back to the point guard. And the play would repeat itself. Here's legendary UNC point guard Phil Ford running the "Four Corners" to great effect:

The inevitable result of this offensive strategy -- which eventually forced the adoption of a shot clock in the mid-80s -- was either a) the opposing team never touched the ball on their offensive end and, therefore, couldn't make a comeback or b) they got so tired of playing defense that they either fouled or allowed North Carolina an easy basket.

While the Republicans' approach is likely to draw criticism from Democrats -- is this why the GOP was elected to lead the House??? (and so on and so forth) -- the reality is that this is a very smart strategy for the GOP if, and this is a big "if", they can stick to it between now and November.

Here's why. Midterm elections tend to be turnout battles between the two parties' bases. The Republican base loathes Obamacare and wants badly to send President Obama a message about it in November. The Democratic base likes Obamacare but, ultimately, doesn't love it as much as the Republican base hates it. A major passion gap exists -- and that's political gold for Republicans. (If you need evidence of which party feels better about running on Obamacare, read this New York Times piece on all the ways vulnerable Democrats are trying to distance themselves from the law and the President.)

Smart Republican strategists know that doing things like, say, shutting down the government or engaging in brinkmanship on the debt ceiling, have the potential to change the dynamic of the 2014 election from a referendum on Obama and the Affordable Care Act into something more resembling a choice between the two parties. And, given where congressional Republicans' job approval ratings sit (Hint -- in the dumpster), they won't win if the election is a choice between their side and Obama. They win when the spotlight shines on the botched rollout of Healthcare.gov and "if you like your insurance, you can keep it." They lose if they get defined as the shut down the government, Ted Cruz and Co. party. (I continue to believe Cruz is a top tier candidate for the GOP nomination in 2016 but Republicans don't want him to be the face of the party or even Obama's foil heading into November.)

Of course, what smart GOP strategists believe is the right course and what the party -- especially in Congress -- actually do are two very different things. The debt ceiling fight has successfully been "won" by the GOP establishment although it came at a cost for both House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. But, what to do -- or whether to do anything -- on immigration looms. House Republicans remain bitterly divided with 30-40 members simply unwilling to go along with any legislation or strategy that originates from their party's leadership or has Boehner's imprimatur attached to it. And, Cruz showed his colors quite clearly in the debt limit fight; he is all about setting himself up to run for president in 2016, not looking out for the good of the GOP in 2014.

Republican leaders have, largely, proved ineffectual at rallying their rank and file behind just about anything over the past few years. (A lone exception was the budget deal crafted by Sen. Patty Murray and Rep. Paul Ryan in late 2013.) To go back to the basketball metaphor, if three offensive players are running the "Four Corners" while the other two are free-lancing and when they get their hands on the ball drive it to the basket, then the offense simply won't work.

The Republican strategy then is best seen as aspirational. If they can keep everyone running the "Four Corners" offense, it has a high likelihood of delivering a very good midterm election for the GOP this fall. But, if past is prologue, the party may well struggle to keep everyone running the same play for the next 259 days.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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Chris Cillizza | February 18